Magic Johnson … Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … Pat Riley … Jack McKinney?
There are several legends commonly associated with the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, aka the “Showtime” Lakers. The most prominent faces are Magic and Kareem, with Riley pulling the strings from the bench at the old Forum in Inglewood, CA. But before Pat, before Magic, and before Showtime, the Lakers hired an obscure coach named Jack.
McKinney’s time in LA was short. But his impact was greater than most can fathom. That’s because if there was no Jack McKinney, there would be no Showtime to speak of.
Jack McKinney was a little-known assistant before getting hired by the Lakers
McKinney, born in 1935, was a tried and true Philadelphian. His first two coaching breaks came at each of his alma maters — a one-year stint at St. James High School and an assistant job at Saint Joseph’s. In 1966, he became the head coach of the Hawks, ironically replacing his former high school coach and future Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay.
Following a shocking dismissal from Saint Joseph’s, a 39-year-old McKinney made it to the NBA in 1974. The former college coach left Philadelphia for the first time to serve as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. Two years later, Ramsay became the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers and hired McKinney as his top assistant. The Pennsylvania pairing led the Blazers to their first and only title in franchise history as well as two additional playoff berths in three seasons.
By 1979, the Lakers had just accepted the resignation of former head coach Jerry West. After striking out on landing Jerry Tarkanian to fill the void left by West, owner Jerry Buss pivoted toward McKinney, the unheralded assistant whose only head coaching experience came at the high school and college levels.
In late July, mere weeks after the team selected Magic with the top overall pick, McKinney was introduced as LA’s next head coach. Dr. Buss cited the Lakers’ need to change their style of play from previous years. And while McKinney’s outward appearance didn’t exactly scream “pizazz”, the 44-year-old had a clear vision for what he wanted the Lakers to become.
McKinney created Showtime and found immediate success with the Purple and Gold
McKinney was gifted a team with lots of talent. But they still needed a winning style and a great leader to take them from good to great.
Simply put, Jack was the right man for the job.
Despite pleas from West, now a team consultant, to turn Johnson into a forward, McKinney gave his 6-foot-9 rookie command of the offense as the team’s point guard. That meant shifting the incumbent floor general Norm Nixon to shooting guard and making the offense less focused on the lumbering Abdul-Jabbar.
With Magic running point, McKinney forced the Lakers to move away from a traditional offense with pre-designed plays and shift toward a run-heavy attack that forced defenses to try to keep up. Under any other coach, players may have been hesitant to the changes. But McKinney had the right temperament to command respect from his team.
“It was fantastic,” LA’s former public relations director Bob Steiner told author Jeff Pearlman in the book Showtime. “Jack was instant enthusiasm. He’d run out onto the court after a great play [and] slap someone on the butt. He was the perfect leader for a perfect team.”
It didn’t take long for Jack to get results. With a show-stopping Magic, a rejuvenated Kareem, and a willing Nixon, LA won nine of its first 13 games. Not only did the Purple and Gold win, but they instantly became the talk of the town. All thanks to a coach who knew how to get the most from his players.
McKinney’s career was tragically cut short
It was obvious from the beginning that McKinney was the man equipped to lead the Lakers into a new, exciting chapter. But while he may have played a huge role in creating it, he was unable to be present as his vision came to life.
In early November of 1979, the first-year coach was on his way to meet assistant coach Paul Westhead for tennis. Without warning, the gears on his bicycle locked up and brought the machine to a sudden halt, flinging McKinney over the bike and tossing him head-first into the cement. The freak accident could have very well killed him, but instead left him with a severe concussion, fractured cheekbone, fractured elbow, and multiple bruises.
Westhead stepped in to serve as LA’s interim. However, as the wins piled up and McKinney’s recovery stagnated (he would end up dealing with significant memory loss over the years), the Lakers made the difficult decision to name Westhead the permanent head coach near the end of the season.
Using McKinney’s offensive gameplan, the Lakers would go on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals. Once Riley replace Westhead, they would win another four titles to cement themselves as one of basketball’s top dynasties.
As for Jack, the visionary became the Indiana Pacers head coach in 1980-81 and worked there for four seasons. In ’84, he coached the Kansas City Kings for nine games before resigning after a 1-8 start. He would never coach again.
“If he hadn’t had the accident,” Riley said in 2006 (h/t: New York Times), “he might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ’80s.”
“He created Showtime,” Nixon told Pearlman. “That should never be forgotten. Jack McKinney created Showtime.”
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.